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Aurora Institute

A Conversation with Adams 50

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Oliver Grenham
Oliver Grenham

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with part of the Adams 50 leadership team: Oliver Grenham, Chief Education Officer; Jeni Gotto, Director of Assessment and Instructional Technology, and Steve Saunders, Communications Director. Our conversation, summarized below, touched on the results they are seeing, the big implementation issues they have faced, and the new ones popping up. Check out their incredibly great wiki to understand their design and implementation, as well as the new video describing their competency-based system.

1. On An Uphill Trajectory, or Getting Out of the Red

Grenham was adamant: “Is our competency-based system making a difference in achievement? Absolutely.”

The graduation rate within Adams 50 continues to increase (the high school is now 74% for the traditional four-year rate, while the most recent districtwide five year rate is 75.4%, which is expected to be higher next August). This in a district with 81% FRL, 45% ELL, and about 39% student turnover per year (18% by Colorado’s newly implemented school-year based calculations). It’s great news.

In terms of school performance, out of Colorado’s four-category accountability system, Adams 50 moved all their schools out of turnaround status (they are marked red on the state reports), with only four schools (two middle and two elementary) in priority improvement. Of the remaining schools, half are in improvement and the other half in performance.

Colorado has a five-tier accreditation system for its school districts, with the highest level being Accredited with Distinction. Districts designated as Turnaround or Priority Improvement have five years to get to improvement status. As the attached chart shows, Adams 50 is close to reaching improvement status.

2. Private Sector Barriers

After four years, Westminster High School in Adams 50 still hasn’t fully implemented competency education. I assumed it was because of complexity that comes from any reform in BIG high schools (it teaches 2,400 students).

Grenham and Gotto explained that the crux of the problem is they haven’t been able to get a workable information management system that is centered around students rather than courses. They have been using Educate in elementary and middle school to track student progress, and were trying to roll it out into high school year by year. They hit their first wall because many elective courses are multi-grade, so teachers would have to manage two information systems – Educate for ninth graders and Infinite Campus for the rest. To mitigate this issue, only the core content areas utilized Educate while all electives used Infinite Campus, thus requiring two separate report cards from the various systems. The dual system approach also caused issues with maintaining up-to-date and accurate transcripts. Teachers did what was needed, but frustration started to build as they continued the rollout over the next two years.

When Adams 50 decided to see if they could use the Infinite Campus Student Information System to monitor student progress, they hit a second wall. Even with modifications, Infinite Campus hasn’t been able to provide the student profiles that allow teachers to monitor student progression. They don’t seem to be able to make the jump to student-centeredness. Teachers can now add standards and indicate student proficiency within courses, but they can’t track when students advance beyond the course, complete standards from previous courses or track progress on interdisciplinary projects. Furthermore, for teachers to see how a student is doing, they have to click on each standard. Infinite Campus hasn’t made student profiles available that show their progress along a learning progression.

Now don’t get me wrong – Infinite Campus is not lagging behind more than any of the other SIS vendors. I heard the same complaints about Power School in New Hampshire. It’s just clear to me that the lack of innovation in the SIS vendors is a big barrier to helping our kids learn.

3. Managing Student-Centric Reforms In A Bureaucratic-Top-Down Environment

The Adams 50 team said it is hard to make progress when they have to respond to numerous policy and initiative rollouts from the Colorado State Department of Education. Adams 50 is dealing with the roll out of new assessments (CMAS & PARCC), teacher evaluations, school readiness and ELL assessments. Each one comes with separate memos, meetings, timelines, and new regulations to be integrated into operations.

If states really want to enable districts to innovate, they need to leave room and flexibility for schools to do so. One of the big things states can do to enable competency education is upgrade the cultures of the SEA itself. (This was discussed in Necessary for Success, page 31). It’s not just organizational restructuring that is needed, but an absolute commitment to treat LEAs with respect, not as underlings. Imagine if states were managing cross departmentally so that every quarter, one new memo was released with all new requirements, timelines and meetings.

As is the case with all competency-based schools, we stopped to talk about assessments and accountability. Grenham explained that Colorado’s accountability model relies heavily on the outcomes of the state assessments along with graduation and dropout rates. This past year, a new state assessment for EL students, known as ACCESS, was added. Grenham acknowledged the test is pretty good but was designed within the old constructs of a traditional educational system and continues to compound the testing burden for ELLs. The test also serves as a measure in Colorado’s accountability model but does not actually help students or teachers with regard to just-in-time learning. Furthermore, ELL students are expected to take all the other state assessments, regardless of whether they had been taught or been determined to be ready for a particular grade level. Colorado does have a Spanish version of the third-grade TCAP assessment – but it assumes the students are instructed and can read in Spanish.

“Assessment should be integral part of instruction, not an intrusion upon it,” Grenham said. “Current high stakes assessment is being done to students and does not empower them as learners. Why can’t we administer these assessments multiple times during the year – and use them as validation for progress upon mastery. Imagine if a student could advance two levels per year because they could take the assessments when they are ready? We don’t give out drivers licenses once a year; we give them out as drivers are deemed ready. Imagine if our medical model only allowed access once a year, so that we had all of our medical tests in January and could not return again until the following year. Why can’t we think about point-in-time assessments based on individual needs, progress and current instruction that incentivizes the learner and build accountability indicators around this concept?”

4. Looking Back

The big lessons learned from their implementation experience to date include:

More Data on Student Learning: Gotto emphasized that competency education generates significantly more data on students. Consider how many standards you are measuring, as each one will generate several pieces of data. Find the best information management solution you can as soon as you can.

Learning to Rethink: Both Grenham and Gotto emphasized that districts converting to competency education need to be ready for a “bumpy journey.” They advise not trying to get everything perfectly designed. Start from where you are and be prepared to learn and improve along the way. They repeatedly pointed out that the core skill that needs to be developed is to think differently, with the focus on student learning. As educators get better at it, they will see ways to better align the system.

All In: Grenham said they discovered that there was no middle ground. “We were all-in or nothing” because the shift to competencyScreen Shot 2014-03-12 at 8.20.15 AM education requires a totally different paradigm. He compared it to that visual game in which you can see an old woman or you can see a young woman, but you can’t see both at the same time.

Discipline Knowledge Matters: Gotto explained that Adams 50 learned that in a competency-based school, it makes a difference if teachers really understand the content discipline. They aren’t teaching ninth-grade curriculum, they are teaching students who may be at different places along a learning progression. Teachers who can teach students at their grade level and can diagnose why students are struggling are going to see their students make progress. Teachers with deep content knowledge also know which standards are worth tracking, rather than trying to track student progress on every standard.

Gotto also raised the issue that the NCLB policy of highly qualified teachers and how states implement it can be a barrier, as secondary schools often have to teach elementary skills and vice versa.

Aligning Academic Levels with Grade Levels: Adams 50, like many other competency-based districts, established a tiered educational system with more than the traditional number of grade levels. Students were placed in a performance level based on proficiency of a learning topic rather than their date of birth. It is designed to bring an end to the destructive practice of social promotion. However, parents found the number of levels confusing, and Adams 50 found that it was taking too many resources to communicate the differences with all stakeholders. So now, grade levels correspond to performance levels. When parents hear that their ninth-grade student is learning at Performance Level 6, they understand immediately that their student is learning at a sixth-grade level.

Curriculum Designed around Learning Progression, Not Type of Schools: Adams 50 found that it was very difficult to find curriculum that provided flexibility to address where students are on their learning progression. Publishers create curricular resources on specific grade levels, with different products for elementary, middle and high school. So a teacher in seventh grade trying to teach a new students with gaps at fourth- or fifth-grade level didn’t have any resources within the middle school curriculum and wasn’t familiar with the elementary school curriculum. This was putting a lot of extra work on teachers.

As a partial solution, Adams 50 switched to Progressive Math Initiative from the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning. It’s a K-12 open source curriculum. Grenham explained that the systemic approach to the curriculum provides a continuum for teachers, rather than the fragmented curriculum they had been using before.

They are still looking for a similar curriculum to use for literacy, science and social studies, but so far haven’t found them.

5. Looking Forward

To end our conversation, we discussed the emerging issues that they see developing, as well as their wish list.

Blending Blended Learning: Interoperability is a huge problem. Adams 50 wishes they could find a single system, or at least have the ability to integrate technology systems so they could draw the student data from adaptive software systems into the student tracking system. They did a lot of the work to create an API, but couldn’t put it together because Educate didn’t offer the full student information management system and Infinite Campus didn’t have the functionality to monitor student progress.

So teachers still have to jump back and forth from the adaptive software to Educate to Infinite Campus to create comprehensive student profile data.

What Are We Willing to Stand Behind? The Guarantee of a Proficiency-based Graduation Diploma: Last year, the Colorado State Board of Education approved high school graduation guidelines that demand students be able to show competency in their studies before receiving a diploma. The requirement is being phased in over seven years and allows districts to develop their own process for measuring competency.

This is a big step in making sure the high school diploma means something, but it also raises a lot of tough questions. Gotto explained that Adams 50 was already delving into this in their grading system. For example, if proficiency for a class is determined to be demonstrating proficiency in 8 out of 10 standards, a student reaching 7 out of 10 is considered Not Yet Proficient. The problem arises if that student transfers to another school, the new school typically will translate an in-progress score to an F, therefore penalizing the student.

This same type of dilemma is going to confront us with proficiency-based diplomas. Do we expect 100% of students to meet 100% of standards at 100% levels?

In addition, college and university admissions departments must learn how to use and interpret a competency-based high school transcript.


Susan and I met with Grenham and Gotto five years ago, when we were doing the initial scan of competency education. We were impressed with their commitment and ability to openly reflect on their efforts. Grenham and Gotto have both grown since then – their leadership, vision, creativity, and depth of knowledge of both the limitations of the traditional system and of the competency-based system we are growing is inspiring. It is thanks to all the educators like Oliver Grenham and Jeni Gotto that we are going to get to the tipping point.